Thoughts on following instructions and challenging them too
One thing I heard so many times at the military secondary school I attended was the mantra “obey before complaint”. It was one of the first introductory statements that welcomed new students to boarding school life. Seniors would call out to random juniors and send them on errands. Many juniors found this annoying (funny how they did the same thing when they became seniors) and would offer genuine or made-up excuses to ensure they could be excused.
Seniors would insist that obeying the first order was expected as this was the army way. It was the same way with teachers when they dished out instructions; you either obeyed or served punishment. It didn’t matter if you thought something was wrong or a problem could be solved another way, you had to execute as instructed. There were very few opportunities for independent thinking.
Following instruction is a critical part of life and in most situations, it helps ensure order in society. For example, heeding the traffic warden’s instructions ensures smooth traffic flow. Adhering to the lecturer’s instructions could make the difference between a pass or a fail. Executing tasks as directed by a supervisor ensures that work is properly managed and deliverables are accounted for as and when due. Following the Architect’s blueprints could make the difference between living in a structurally stable house or surviving a building collapse.
Many people assume that following instructions simply means being told to do something and doing as one is told or reading a guide and following its dictates to the letter. Unfortunately, this is a major reason many people end up making avoidable errors. Receiving instructions is one part of the process of following instructions, the other part is clarifying when in doubt. It is not enough to receive instruction and act, one must ensure that one understands exactly what is expected: the intent behind the instruction and also the required action.
I believe family backgrounds, educational structures, and society contributes a great deal to making people follow instructions without questioning. From childhood, many kids are taught to “do as you are told”: there is barely ever an opportunity to seek clarification or offer a dissenting opinion. In nursery school, you learn your ABCs and if you ask why A comes before B, you would probably get a knock on the head: just repeat it the same way the teacher did. The multiplication table and why you have to memorise it? Just do as you are told. So kids go home and when parents do their homework with them, they say: “my teacher said this or that” and “that is not the way my teacher did it”. Not many children end up understanding the need to seek clarification when they were constantly told to follow instructions except they have the support to ask questions and get answers.
Many people carry on this way until they become teenagers or young adults when they can “test” the instructor. Imagine yourself in a Nigerian higher institution facing an old maths lecturer and asking how dy/dx would be useful to your future then imagine his response (or lack thereof). When some people experience this or see it happen to others, they learn to just keep following instructions without seeking clarification. Some also follow instructions out of the fear of “what would happen if I don’t?” not realising that something worse could happen if they do. Many of these people enter the workforce and wonder why they have challenges at work when they have simply done as they were told to do, not realising that independent thinking is often required.
The same reasons that encourage some people to follow instructions without questioning are probably the same ones that encourage some others to do the opposite. Formal education is one of the greatest conditioning tools on earth, another one is the media, and then there is also the family or immediate community. This is probably why we have many younger people challenging instructions and seeking to understand the reasoning and intention behind instructions before taking action. Children who are exposed to global academic curricula and international media are probably more likely to think independently than those who have not.
Now, taking an independent decision after being given an instruction is always a risk: it could either signal rebellion or self-starting qualities depending on how it is perceived. Some people refuse to follow instructions because they are rebellious and use that as a form of expressing themselves. They could be stubborn or ignorant, or just seeking attention: they are in their own world. Some people do not trust the outcome of the instructions as they understand it (or in the instructor) and choose to do something else. And some take the time to think through instructions and realise there could be a better way to execute them and decide to do something else. In the latter two scenarios, the most important thing is ensuring that the instructor is carried along so there would be no issues.
Some of the factors that guide which instructions to follow and which ones to challenge are morals, ethics, values, commonsense, good judgement, trust, experience, and superior information. A person may act on an instruction they are uncertain about if they trust the instructor or if they are unsure of the basis of their uncertainty. Conversely, another person may not act on an instruction that is at variance with their values. A subordinate may have a greater insight into a matter simply because he has obtained knowledge from a specialist qualification. Another person may choose to seek clarifications because her prior experience suggests that the reasoning behind instruction may be incomplete.
So, what happens when one seeks clarification or offers a dissenting opinion about the instruction and the instructor insists on the task being implemented as they have stated? Should one go ahead and execute when they have doubts or reservations? I can’t give a specific answer as each situation is unique in itself. What I would however suggest is that whatever decisions are made must be made with the end in mind.
Thankfully, we are not zombies: we are all capable of independent, rational thinking. People need to realise that they always have choices when handed instructions and with that choice, comes the resulting consequence. Many of the people who have challenged instructions have brought about great change in the world today and also suffered for taking initiative. Don’t just swallow instructions hook, line, and sinker, question them so you can understand the reasoning. As always, this is the way I see things today.